The Sir William Burrell Collection Of Chinese Art

Sir-william-BurrellThe Burrell Collection was given to the City of Glasgow in 1944 by Sir William and Lady Constance Burrell. Sir William Burrell (1861-1958) was a wealthy Glasgow shipowner with a lifelong passion for art collecting. The family was of Northumbrian origin, and his grandfather George moved to Glasgow in the early 1830s. By 1856/7 George was established as a shipping and forwarding agent at Port Dundas, the Glasgow terminus of the Forth and Clyde Canal. In the following year he was joined by his son, Sir William’s father, and henceforward the firm traded

under the name of Burrell and Son. Initially its shipowning was confined to vessels small enough to transit the Canal, but in 1866 it took a half-share in an ocean-going steamer and by 1875 a further six steamers had been built for them. Two bore the prefix “Strath”, which continued to be used by Burrell and Son throughout the firm’s existence.

In 1876, the future Sir William entered the firm at the age of 15, and on his father’s death in 1885 he and his eldest brother George took over the management. Burrell and Son was already prospering, but under their shrewd direction it reached a position of international standing in worldwide tramping and in ship management.


The Burrell brothers undoubtedly had the Midas touch. George kept abreast of developments in marine engineering while William specialized in the commercial side. Their fortunes were based on a steady nerve, foresight and breathtaking boldness. The formula was quite simple. In times of depression they would order a large number of ships at rock-bottom prices, calculating that the vessels would be coming off the stocks when the slump was reaching an end. Burrell and Son was then in a position to attract cargoes because it had ships available and could undercut its rivals. Then, after several years of highly profitable trading, the brothers would sell the fleet in a boom period and lie low until the next slump occurred, at which point the cycle would begin again. It sounds easy, and Burrell himself described it as making money like slate-stones, but none of the firm’s competitors was bold enough to take such risks.

The operation was repeated twice on a large scale. In 1893/4 twelve new ships were built for the fleet of Burrell and Son at a time when the industry was in a very depressed state. A few years later, advantage was taken of the current high prices obtainable for shipping and every vessel flying the Burrell house flag was sold. After going into semi-retirement for several years, in 1905 William and George rocked the shipping world by ordering no fewer than twenty steamers; a further eight were delivered in 1909/10. After a few years of prosperous trading the brothers once again decided to capitalize on the rise in the market value of ships, a rise which became dramatic after the outbreak of the First World War. Between 1913 and 1916 almost the entire fleet was sold, including vessels which were still on the stocks. With his share of the proceeds shrewdly invested, William Burrell devoted remainder of his long life to what became an all-consuming passion, the amassing of a vast art collection.

By now, Burrell was one of the most important collectors in Scotland. His interest in art went back to his youth. While still a boy he was already buying pictures, although he used to say in later years that their chief value lay in the frames. Although it is not known what sparked off Burrell’s love of art, there were plenty of opportunities in late 19th century Glasgow for him to form his tastes. A number of collectors were to be found amongst the wealthy Scottish industrialists and shipowners of the time, men like Alexander Young, Arthur Kay, W. A. Coats, T.G. Arthur and Sir Thomas Gibson Carmichael. This market was created and serviced by several discerning dealers, of whom the most important was Alexander Reid (1854-1928) who in 1889 opened his galleries in Glasgow. Although Reid stocked works by Monticelli and the Hague School artists, he also gradually introduced Scottish collectors to French painters like Boudin, Fantin-Latour and Degas. In addition, he was a great friend of Whistler and an admirer of Crawhall. Burrell, many years later, paid glowing tribute to Reid’s influence: “He did more than any other man has ever done to introduce fine pictures to Scotland and to create a love of art.” Burrell bought from him continuously from the 1890s into the 1920s.

An estimate of Burrell’s early interests can be obtained from his loans to the Glasgow International Exhibition of 1901, when he was the largest single lender with more than two hundred works. Their range and scope show that he was already a collector of major standing. They included medieval tapestries, ivories, wood and alabaster sculpture, stained glass and bronzes, Roman glass, 16th and 18th-century Dutch, German and Venetian table glass, silver, furniture and Persian rugs. The pictures numbered amongst them works by the Maris brothers, Couture, Gericault, Daumier, Manet, Monticelli and Jongkind, in addition to two Whistlers, three Crawhalls and seven drawings by Phil May. It is noteworthy that most of the areas in which Burrell collected throughout his long life are well represented, demonstrating that the shape of the Collection was already formed.

Between 1901 and 1911 little is known of Burrell’s collecting, apart from his acquisition of some fine pictures, including his first Degas. Unfortunately, at the same time he was selling as well as buying, a policy he was to continue even after the sale of the fleet had removed any major financial restrictions on the scale of his spending on art. In 1902, for example, he sent nearly forty pictures for auction, and among those sold were paintings by Daumier and Manet which are now in the United States.

From 1911 until 1957 Burrell kept detailed records of his expenditure in twenty-eight school exercise books. He made almost all the entries himself, except during the last few months when failing eyesight compelled him to delegate the task to others. These purchase books are an invaluable record of the astounding range and scale of his collecting. Although the entries tend to become more detailed as the years go by, the basic format was established on the first page of the first book. There are separate columns for date of acquisition, description, from whom the item was acquired, its price, date of delivery, insurance and whether photographed. The last column is headed “All in Order” and usually has Burrell’s initials.

For the first five or six years after the commencement of the purchase books he confined his acquisitions almost exclusively to Chinese ceramics and bronzes, fields in which he appears to have shown no interest prior to 1901. Until 1915 his level of expenditure was low, consisting of an annual average of £500. From 1915 the graph of Burrell’s spending starts to rise, coinciding with the sale of the bulk of the fleet. From then onwards, using the interest from his investments, Burrell spent very large sums. Altogether, between 1911 and 1957 his outlay on new acquisitions averaged £20,000 per annum. There are two peaks: in 1936 when his expenditure reached nearly £80,000, and 1948 when he spent in excess of £60,000. His most costly purchases were paintings and tapestries.

Throughout his long career as a collector Burrell bought from many dealers, chiefly in London and Paris. Amongst them was a small number of specialists who acted as his tried and trusted advisers and agents. These included Alexander Reid for pictures, Wilfred Drake for stained glass, Frank Surgey and Frank Partridge for furniture, John Hunt for medieval and Elizabethan furniture and objets d’art, and John Sparks for Chinese art.

Burrell was never an easy client. He was strong-minded, liked to haggle over prices and could be very cautious. Even dealers with whom he had done business over some years would find him seeking a second opinion on an object they were attempting to sell him. Burrell was also very circumspect in his approach to a potential acquisition. He liked to “circle round it”, as he put it in order to disarm potential rival bidders if the item were to be auctioned or avoid raising the price by alerting a dealer to his interest. On occasions his refusal to pay high prices caused him to miss some very important pieces, but on the other hand his knowledge, excellent memory and good eye enabled him to pick up some outstanding bargains. It must also be noted that although Burrell was wealthy, he was not in the league of great American art magnates like Widener, Walters, Kress, Mellon and Hearst; in order to compete with them he had to use his resources carefully.

There can be no doubt that Burrell bought extremely well. He succeeded in forming a major collection in almost every field in which he was interested. The Chinese ceramics and bronzes are surpassed only by those of three or four other museums in the British Isles, of which two are national collections, and the Persian, Caucasian and Indian rugs and carpets can be ranked with the holdings of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Burrell’s paintings, particularly those of the French 19th century, would grace any major gallery. And all this is before the real strength of his collection, the Late Gothic and Early Renaissance works of art from Northern Europe, is taken into account. The entire range of medieval artistic activity is represented: the stained glass stands comparison with the holdings of the Cloisters museum in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum; the tapestries rank amongst the world’s finest collections; and the medieval sculpture, particularly the English alabasters, and the furniture include some outstanding pieces. Taking the medieval section of the Burrell Collection as a whole, it is no exaggeration to say that within the British Isles it is second only to that of the Victoria and Albert Museum in its range.

Until about 1930 Burrell seems to have been buying merely for his personal enjoyment, with no thought of forming a collection which would be kept together after his death. Until then he continued to sell or exchange paintings, but in the 1930s he formed the idea not only of having a permanent collection but of handing it over to public ownership. Burrell had discussions with a number of interested parties regarding the disposal of the Collection, and eventually, in 1944, it was donated to Glasgow, the city of his birth and centre of his business activities, in the names of himself and Lady Burrell. By this time it numbered some 6,000 items. A few years later he gave the then Glasgow Corporation £450,000 for the construction of a building in which the Collection was to be housed and displayed. The terms of the Deed of Gift as regards this building, however, presented difficulties. Burrell stated that it should be within four miles of Killearn in Stirlingshire and not less than sixteen miles from the Royal Exchange in Glasgow. He felt that the Collection would appear to best advantage in a rural setting and was also deeply concerned at the harm which could be caused by the high levels of air pollution then prevailing over Glasgow. The councillors and Corporation officials were aware of the problems in, firstly, finding a suitable site and then in administering a museum so far removed from the city, but attempts to persuade Burrell to make his conditions less stringent met with little success. Various sites were considered, but the issue was still unresolved at the time of Burrell’s death. It was only nine years later, in 1967, when Mrs Anne Maxwell Macdonald presented Pollok House and estate to the City of Glasgow, that a site was at last found.

Whilst the search for a permanent home for his Collection continued, Burrell applied his organizing ability to the recalling of those items on loan throughout the country and the transference to Glasgow of the objects in his home at Hutton Castle in Berwickshire. Also, despite his advanced years, his taste for new acquisitions remained undiminished, and the Collection grew at an even faster rate: between 1944 and 1957 a further 2,000 items were added to the original gift. For some years Burrell continued to use his own money for new purchases, but in 1949 he came to an arrangement with the Corporation whereby he was empowered to use some of the interest on the sum he had given for the new museum. In these last few years he continued to buy in the same fields as before, but concentrated on certain areas which he considered needed strengthening. Between 1947 and 1957 the largest number of acquisitions were made in the ancient Civilizations of Mesopotamia, Assyria, Egypt, Greece and Rome, a field into which Burrell had scarcely ventured prior to 1944. He felt that these purchases would serve to round off the Collection.

He also kept an eye open for items which would enhance the appearance of the new museum. Some major acquisitions of stained glass were made, especially the splendid series of early 16th-century heraldic panels from Fawsley in Northamptonshire, which Burrell tried to obtain before the Second World War and which finally entered the Collection in 1950. Most important of all was the purchase from William Randolph Hearst’s collection of a series of medieval stone doorways, windows and niches, and of screens and other architectural fittings in wood, all of which were acquired with the aim of incorporating them into the fabric of the proposed gallery. It must have given Sir William Burrell much pleasure to know that the Fawsley glass and Hearst Collection items were amongst the best bargains he ever obtained in more than eighty years of collecting. Sadly, he did not live to see them in the gallery in Pollok Park, where they form such an important feature. He died at Hutton Castle on 29 March 1958, at the age of 96.

By Nick Pearce